Chapter One - Plotting
Cuddy sat with her feet wrapped beside her, peep-toe heels kicked off onto the floor, staring out her office window at the last hours of golden sunlight that crossed the grounds outside Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. There were two cups of tea on the table in front of her, one she had stopped sipping almost an hour ago when she realized it no longer held any warmth, and one almost untouched, sitting only inches away.
The now cooled liquid shown amber in the growing evening hour: the two mugs daring her to see the obvious metaphor that had been presented to her that afternoon. One cup full and the other half full, or half empty, depending on your point of view. It wasn't really up to her, whether or not to fill the other cup. That, she knew, was a necessity the hospital could not do without. But from her own point of view, Lisa Cuddy was having trouble finding a palatable way to fill the other teacup without making an even larger mess.
She turned as she heard a polite rap on her door, Wilson announcing his presence before taking a seat at the other end of the sofa. "You wanted to see me before I left?"
She smiled warmly; glad to see a friendly face. "Yes." She set her legs firmly on the floor and turned to face him. "I need your help."
Wilson's lips pursed before letting out a helpless sigh. "What did House do now?" he asked, awaiting the laundry list of mischievous and no doubt expensive ways in which his best friend had managed to put his mark on the hospital during the last few days. House required constant damage control.
"His job" her voice was thick with irony.
Wilson just stared. "Sorry?"
Cuddy leaned forward, face in her hands. She shook her head. "How many times have I begged, pleaded, fought with House just trying to get him to do his damn job? And the one time he actually listens, you know what happens?"
He was staring into Cuddy's desperate eyes, not sure how or even if to answer.
"The sky comes crashing down!" Cuddy finished and tried a deep cleansing breath.
Wilson laughed nervously. "Okay, Chicken Little," he said with all the love that his confusion allowed. "Just tell me one thing. Are we being sued?"
"No, but we are being used," she sighed.
"And that's worse than being sued?" Wilson continued to pry information from her.
"No. Yes," Cuddy quickly reconsidered. "Both. For the hospital it's great, if I can find a way to pull it off. If I fail it will be a disaster. And if I succeed it will be a personal disaster, I'm sure. Which is why," she told him, "I need your help."
"Right," he replied, clueless.
Cuddy looked at Wilson, his brow furrowed, his arms and legs crossed. The poor man had no idea what she was talking about, yet there he sat, ready and willing to help. "Sorry about the dramatic rant," she instantly apologized. "It's really my problem."
"No, no!" Wilson assured her. "Just tell me exactly what House did."
Cuddy bit her lower lip, straining with the words. "He managed to pull off the largest financial windfall this hospital has seen in years." Her voice went up as she neared the end of the sentence, as if she were still questioning the idea entirely.
Wilson sat stunned for a moment before finding his voice. "This is a problem. Either he's blackmailing a patient or he's had a sudden and radical personality shift."
"If only," she mused. Then, pointing to the two teacups in front of them said, "I had a very unusual visit this afternoon from one of House's former patients; one wishing to express his gratitude."
"Because House did his job?" Wilson confirmed.
Cuddy nodded. "Yes. And the timing couldn't be worse."
"Well, House has always been known for his great timing," he said sarcastically, risking a sly grin at Cuddy.
She took it as he intended, with sympathy. "Tell me about it."
"Who is this former patient and just how grateful is he?" Wilson asked.
"It's Thomas Hughes," she gave the name, "and the donation is enough to keep the clinic running for the next five years, no other monies needed."
A whistle blew past Wilson's lips as he calculated a rough number in his head. Then pausing, he searched his memory for the name of the benefactor. "Hughes? As in owns half of New Jersey, grandfather was the governor, summer vacations with the Kennedy's? That Thomas Hughes?"
Cuddy nodded, the money sparkling green in her blue eyes.
"House never had him as a patient," Wilson stated. Wilson knew the names of House's former patients better than House did. To House, patients were a list of symptoms, a puzzle leading to an ingenious diagnosis that only he could have made. A name was not a symptom in a differential.
"His four year-old daughter," Cuddy began to explain. "Apparently their nanny brought her in to the clinic a few months ago. Not being from a wealthy family and not knowing what insurance the kid had . . ."
"She brought her to the clinic because she comes to clinic. She knows it's free," Wilson finished.
"Apparently the kid saw House, who, after chastising her nanny for waiting more than a week to bring the girl in, admitted her with what was later confirmed as Tularemia. Turns out the new pet rabbit was from the backyard, not the pet store. Mom and Dad were in the Bahamas and had no idea."
"Which explains House's speech about the merits of requiring a license to procreate that I received a few months back," Wilson concluded. "So the parents are overjoyed that their little girl is alive and well?" He looked to Cuddy for confirmation and she nodded. "And now they want to write a check with what I'm guessing is some number followed by, say, nine zeros." Again, Cuddy nodded. "What's the catch?"
Cuddy took a deep breath. "He wants a very public event at which to hand over this generous donation," she began, "with all of the money promised to the free clinic," she gulped, "to be accepted by Doctor Gregory House."
Wilson half laughed, half grunted. "Has he actually met House?" he asked Cuddy.
She gave him a coy smile. "Let's just say that you weren't the only one who got a lecture on licenses for procreation."
"So they know he's an ass?" Wilson said, trying to wrap his head around the idea of an insulted parent, and Forbes One Hundred listed top lawyer, wanting to be anywhere near his brilliant yet socially caustic best friend, except of course, in court."By any chance, is there something other than a healthy daughter behind this public endorsement of preventive health care, using a world famous diagnostician who just happens to be a self righteous ass as a figure head?"
Cuddy leaned forward. "Let's just say, I wouldn't put it past Hughes to have a little fun making House squirm for a cause while he works on stuffing the campaign coffers with a pledge to single-handedly lead the charge for health care reform."
Wilson leaned back and took a deep breath. "Damn. You are screwed."
Cuddy let her head fall back against the couch. "Oh, God," she felt her stomach turn. "It's not like I can say no, Wilson. Charitable giving is down and the clinic is suffering as it is."
"You know House is going to see right through this." Wilson sympathized, but wouldn't sugar coat the predicament. "He won't do it, no matter how many zeros are on that check. He has," it sounded weird even as he said it, "scruples."
"Which is why I need your help," Cuddy pleaded. "There must be something you have on House? Something humiliating enough to get him to accept that check with minimal damage to the hospital?"
Wilson put up his hands in self defense. "Hey, I wish I did, but the guy doesn't embarrass easy. And he tends to take a certain pride in concocting elaborate schemes to turn the tables on any poor sap who tries." He saw the panic starting to rise as Cuddy slowly wrung her hands together. "Don't you have anything on him?"
She scoffed. "I can't threaten to fire him. I do that and he's no longer obligated to accept the money."
"True," Wilson said, cringing at the idea that House felt obligated to do anything.
"I guess I could threaten to get rid of someone on his team," she considered. "Though I doubt he'd care enough to save any one of them."
"Probably not," Wilson agreed.
"Wilson, if the board finds out the hospital missed out on funding to keep the clinic running for years without spending another dime they'll go after the money themselves. And House's department will be the first to go." She cringed at the thought. House could be an ass, but she liked owning that ass.
"A normal, rational person would take that as reason enough to play along," Wilson said. "But House . . ."
"Is not normal and rational only when it suits him," Cuddy finished Wilson's thought. "What if we don't tell him?" she tossed out. "We trick him into putting on a suit and tie and shove him in front of the check before he knows what hit him?"
Wilson laughed at her desperation. "Right. You get the chloroform and we'll stuff him in the trunk of my car. Piece of cake."
Cuddy laughed at herself. It would never work, but she liked the picture she had of stuffing House into Wilson's trunk.
Sliding off the sofa, Cuddy began to pace the length of the room. "Okay," she said, processing out loud. "Then I bargain. I do it all the time. What does House want that he can't get without my approval?"
"Badly enough to be a willing hypocrite in front of the entire hospital, Hughes political chums, and likely the news media?" Wilson bottom lined it for her.
"In a tux," Cuddy added and Wilson chuckled.
Cuddy continued to pace in the failing light, her stocking feet padding against the floor, her body tired and stiff, her mind searching and discarding. She'd pace all night if Wilson let her.
"Okay," he began, timid at first. "I do have one idea and you'll probably fire me for it, but I'm just going to throw this out there and let it land where it may."
Cuddy stared at him expectantly.
"You'll have to sleep with him," Wilson said plainly. He knew he should feel like a heel for even saying it, but the words brought a surprising sense of relief, as if the weight he carried being the buffer for House and Cuddy's cat and mouse antics over the years had slid from his shoulders. It didn't even sound that ridiculous now that he'd said it out loud. Dynamics change with time, even between two people who found pleasure in being one insult ahead of the other.
As for Cuddy, she didn't even appear shocked. She simply rolled her eyes and crossed her arms tight against her chest. "I'm not sleeping with House," she said in a calm, firm tone. "But thank you for that constructive idea."
Wilson took that as his cue and stood up, crossing the room and placing one hand gently on her shoulder. "Cuddy, it's late. Go home, get some rest. You'll figure out something."
She smiled, tired and grateful for his concern. "Thank you."
He turned to leave and feeling her gaze hot on his neck, turned back at the opened the door and promised, "I won't say a thing to House."
She looked at him appreciatively. "Goodnight, Wilson."
House gripped the bottom of his cane, leaning back ever so slightly, releasing the ball that usually held court on his desk from its crook. It landed with a pleasing thud against the wall above the light box on his office wall and bounced back, returning to balance on the grip before being launched again at the wall. Each pass of the ball let House serve out one more piece in the puzzle he was currently attempting to wrap his head around.
Wilson was being unusually accommodating. THUD. Not only had he bought lunch every day this week, he hadn't given House his usual scolding when he'd asked to borrow a couple hundred bucks without explanation. THUD. Not that House had any reason behind asking for the cash other than that he could. THUD. "Consider this, and the rest of the money you owe me, a down payment," Wilson had said, "for a favor." THUD.
His team had barely challenged him on even the most ridiculous diagnoses or treatments in their most recent case. THUD. They hadn't gone around him and tried to cover their asses. THUD. They'd even been willing to fudge the truth a little to get the needed consent forms signed. THUD.
And then there was Cuddy. THUD. She hadn't come after him for the useless consent forms for a procedure that had little chance of giving him anything diagnostically relevant. THUD. Or chastised him for his usual, vocal ogling of her wardrobe, her perfectly tight ass, or her perfectly sculpted breasts. THUD. She hadn't even called him on the clinic hours he'd been cheating his way out of, arriving late, escaping early, all while managing to keep his quota of insults for truly idiotic patients. THUD.
He caught the ball firmly in his right hand on its return, setting aside his cane. There was a conspiracy afoot, likely on a massive scale, all to get House to agree to something, likely vital to the hospital, of which those closest to him knew he would never willingly consent. His lips slid into a smug grin and his eyes danced as he sifted through the possibilities that came to mind. He felt the endorphins begin to course through his body as he realized that the ball, literally, was in his court. He would need to be prepared with a price, his price, for whatever it was they were conspiring to have him do.
"This," he said, placing the ball back on the desk, "could be fun."
The elevator chimed and Lisa Cuddy stepped out, heels clicking softly on the tile floor as she scanned the vicinity for signs of unwanted personnel lingering past the eight o clock hour. Wilson's office was empty, a good sign, and the janitors were still busy on the lower floors. There was no movement from the coffee cart down the hall. She had watched carefully to be sure House's staff had left, marking each of their departures as one step closer to the inevitable hour of her undoing. Finally, she took in a deep breath as she saw the one remaining light on, the one behind his door, and forced herself to march confidently towards it.
She pushed the glass door aside with ease and strode halfway into the office before stopping dead center, with what she hoped was a gentle and sincere smile on her face. He sat casually behind his desk, feet up, with a diagnostics journal on his desk and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in his hands.
"Dr. Cuddy," he said with a coy air as he lowered his feet to the floor, deliberately laying the centerfold open on his desk.
"Dr. House," she said pleasantly. She tried getting a read on him. On the one hand, he was relaxing with soft porn, which she interpreted as House being House, and therefore not suspicious of her motives for the late night visit. On the other hand, House rarely stayed this late even when he had a case, which she knew he no longer did, which made her nervous that he suspected something and had decided to wait her out. Either way, it didn't change what she had come here to do. The only way out was through.
"I have a proposition for you, House." Cuddy heard herself screaming inside her head. Proposition! House! Could she have chosen a more inappropriate word?
He didn't disappoint, not missing a beat. "If you've got the million dollars," he toyed with her, "I will definitely sleep with you. Or let you have Wilson. Who's the Demi Moore in this remake?" He held her gaze, tempting her to lash back with something equally clever.
"Huh," she let a condescending laugh pass her lips as she found herself facing off once again with her favorite sparing partner. "As much as I'd love to watch you roll around naked in pile of cash," she said with a throaty lilt that left goose bumps on the back of House's neck, "I'm afraid this indecent proposal has nothing to do with sex."
House watched Cuddy slide into the chair across from him, lifting one perfectly bare leg over the other until she sat, creamy thighs seductively crossed beneath her linen pencil skirt. He made no attempt to hide the fantasy of watching her perfectly shaped legs, and everything that came after, spread out on his bed, a wicked smile on her pouty lips as she slid between crisp hundred dollar bills. It made her flush slightly to see herself so clearly in the image behind House's leering blue eyes.
"How do I look in green?" she asked, cutting the tension.
House breathed visibly for the first time in almost a minute. "Good," he answered, refocusing his attentions. "So, what's this proposal you've got everyone so worked up about?"
"Excuse me?" Cuddy tried to clarify.
"Wilson is trying to bribe me with obscene," he let his eyes bug out for effect, "amounts of cash. Foreman is trying to get in under the radar by letting me do insanely dangerous and unnecessary procedures." Cuddy's brow furrowed in slight panic at that. "Oh relax," he told her. "I didn't actually do any of them. " He watched as she let out a sigh of relief. "And you, Dr. Cuddy, "he said in his most accusatory tone, "have done absolutely nothing. No stern yet delightful little reprimands for the very public compliments on your stunning ass." He saw her try to hide a smile. "No threats to cut off my Vicodin supply if I don't stop popping the pills in front of the patients. And, most damning of all," he paused for dramatic effect, "no afternoon delight yelling matches in your office over my lack of clinic hours." He sat back, a satisfied smirk on his face.
"You got me," she admitted. Sliding the chair closer, Cuddy rested her elbows against the glass top of House's desk, sure to lean forward just enough to offer him a glimpse down her lacy pink blouse. A distracted House was always easier to deal with than a smug House.
He fidgeted slightly, torn between taking the offered view of Cuddy's forbidden fruit and getting to the part of their conversation where he refused to do whatever she needed him to do. After that, the real negotiating could begin, and he was looking forward to that part of the conversation almost as much as staring down Cuddy's blouse.
"I need you to accept a check on behalf of the hospital and the free clinic," Cuddy plowed ahead, eager to get House onboard while he still thought he had a chance of seeing more than a glimpse.
"Sure," House said, never taking his eyes off her chest. "Where do I sign?" Was she wearing a front clasp or a back clasp?
"It's not coming by messenger, House," Cuddy told him.
"Back," he announced suddenly.
"Your bra," House gestured towards her breasts. "Cleavage like that, no way those puppies stay in with a front clasp."
Cuddy straightened, rolled her eyes, and started over. "Almost three months ago you had a patient, Olivia Hughes," she began.
"If you say so."
"Her nanny brought her into the clinic while her parents were out of town," she continued. "You diagnosed her with pneumonia from Tularemia after you discovered she'd been cuddling up to her newly adopted backyard bunny."
House dropped his gaze off to the side. "Yes," he drew out. "It's comforting to know that when the best concierge doctors prescribe bed rest for a kid with pneumonia, which isn't your garden variety pneumonia, there's always a free clinic with a world class diagnostician just around the corner, willing to pick up the pieces of the rich and famous and their incompetence. I know I sleep better at night."
"As much as I appreciate your sarcasm," Cuddy agreed, "it's that warm, fuzzy feeling that brought this . . ." she searched for a word that embodied the predicament. She settled for two. "Blesséd mess, raining down on the hospital. Blessed for the hospital, mess for you, which in turn means a mess for me, seeing as the hospital being so blessed depends on your cooperation." Just saying it frazzled her nerves.
House stared at her, popping two Vicodin, curious to know what predicament she was so tied up in knots over needing his cooperation to solve.
"Thomas Hughes, Olivia's father, who it seems took your lecture on licenses to breed and health coverage for all to heart," Cuddy paused to allow House a few choice words of his own, "wants to give the clinic three million dollars at gala, a week from tonight, in your honor."
"Oh, good God!" House exclaimed with a rumble. "It's your damn clinic! I'm there against my will! If it were up to me, his rich little princess would have died in some fancy New York hospital bed and he'd be spending the three million on his legal team."
Cuddy nodded. "You're probably right."
"The damn nanny brought the poor kid in! A college co-ed has more sense than the private doctors of the richest man in the state," he continued to rant. "Just tell the bastard I decided to take an extended vacation in Bermuda – "
"The Bahamas," Cuddy corrected him.
"The Bahamas," House spat out with stiff irony, "rather than make my self available to accept a donation on behalf the hospital. I'm sure he'll understand perfectly."
House was up and limping towards his easy chair at the other end of the office. With a loud flop, he crashed into the yellow chair and raised his right leg, rubbing his thigh in both pain and disgust. He waited, kneading the scar beneath his jeans, for what seemed like several minutes before looking up to see what was keeping Cuddy so quiet.
She stood just out of his reach, desperate to hold herself back from going to him, helping to somehow rid him of the pain he lived with every day. Pain, she was reminded, was in small part, her doing. Over the years, what guilt she felt for going against his wishes had eroded away. Some of it was time. Some of it was knowing she had been right. A lot of it was putting up with the grief House gave her daily in return. But a part of her still grieved over what he had lost. Times like these, she found it harder to stay focused on her role as a doctor rather than as an old friend. She knew that he used that against her. He was probably milking it right now. She didn't know if that made her more angry or sad.
"House," she said more firmly than she had intended to. Apparently, tonight, anger had edged sorrow out. "Look at me," she demanded.
He dropped his leg and turned his full, penetrating gaze on her. She was about to state her terms and conditions, and despite the dull ache in his leg, he knew he had to be on his game if he wanted to manipulate the situation to his advantage. This is what he'd been planning for all afternoon. Scheming after, considering variable after variable in an effort to make whatever inevitable task she required of him just as much fun for him as it would be for her. And three million dollars was a lot of fun in Cuddy's world.
"Do you actually think that I want you to accept that check, in front crowds of potential donors and from a man you'd rather humiliate than simply shout obscenities at in your head while you shake his hand and take the damn money?" Cuddy had to laugh to keep the tears away.
"Good, then we're agreed," House said. "I shouldn't be the one to accept the check. In fact, it's probably best if I stay away from the party altogether. Although, they probably have an open bar."
"House!" Cuddy was exacerbated. "There's no way around this one. I told him you were sick, he offered to reschedule. I told him you had taken an extended vacation, he said he'd come to you. I told him you'd fled the country. He recommended a private investigator!"
"What did say when you told him I wouldn't do it because he's a hypocrite whose timely donation so happens to coincide with the deadline for announcing his candidacy for supreme ruler of universe?"
Cuddy sighed. "Senate, actually. And he said you were the most self righteous ass he'd ever met and the only way this hospital would see a dime was if that self righteous ass of a doctor stood next to the incompetent ass of father and shook his hand as he declared his candidacy for national office."
House looked at her, cheeks flushed, arms at her waist, heels digging into his carpet, a curl falling over one eye. God, she's beautiful when she's pissed.
"You enjoyed that, didn't you?" House teased, his smug grin beginning to return.
Cuddy waved the rouge curl back into place and let a tiny smile slip. "I may have found it somewhat cathartic," she admitted.
House was done with preliminaries. Time to go for the real foreplay.
"So what's in it for me?" he asked, not a trace of being anything less than serious in his voice.
"Hah!" Cuddy let out a mocking laugh. "Three million dollars for the clinic and an open bar." She raised her eyebrows, challenging him.
House remained deliberately calm. "Cuddy," he said, reprimanding her with her own name. "Come on. We both know that's not how this works."
She took a step back, leaning on the edge of his desk, arching her back, ever so slightly."Really? How does this work then, House?"
He loved the way his name sounded when she was using it to manipulate him. Low and soft, every sound said with careful and deliberate control.
"You," he began, catching his breath, "make me a terribly insulting offer in return for my cooperation."
She felt her smile turn sultry as she watched him, hands behind his head, piercing blue eyes wandering up and down her perfectly positioned frame, wondering how many steps it would take to land her beneath him on the desk.
"Which you cleverly reject," she said, playing her part in the dance.
He grinned. "After which, I make a completely unrealistic counter offer," House continued, wondering how quickly he could get the remaining buttons on her blouse undone.
"Which I in turn, reject, questioning your sanity, humanity, or some other appropriately lacking quality." She let her eyes graze over House's own muscular frame, lingering on his hands; strong, deliberate hands that practiced medicine like they practiced music, with the perfect touch.
"Followed," he continued, leaning forward to take her all in, "by your inevitable caving to my demands."
"Hmmm," Cuddy shifted seductively in front of him. "Not this time, House."
House could feel the blood pumping harder as he realized their tango wasn't over. This would be even more fun than he thought.
"Let's find out," he challenged her, raising an eyebrow tauntingly.
"Okay," Cuddy wet her lips, sure of herself. "Three million dollars, a five hour event, for which you will only be present for three."
"Three is better than five," House conceded.
Cuddy pushed herself up off the desk, taking small steps towards House. "For every one of those three hours that you are a visible, well-behaved, mildly charming, gracious guest of honor," she paused, "I will let you out of two full months of clinic duty."
She tried to gauge House's reaction so far. Damn his perfectly smug poker face!
"And," she continued her small, sultry steps closer to him, "If you survive all three of those hours without insulting or causing embarrassment to this hospital, me, yourself, or the guests and manage to pull off a gracious acceptance of Hughes donation with out sarcasm or political commentary, I'll give you two extra months. That's eight months off clinic duty, at your discretion, any time you want to take it." She finished, her gracious offer now practically in House's lap, just like she was.
A puff of air escaped from between Houses lips, his face rising to meet hers. "You do see the irony in having me accept a check for a clinic in which I won't be working?" he couldn't resist pointing this out.
Gotcha, Cuddy said to herself, careful not to betray relief or victory on her face. She simply bent and gently pushed House's legs onto the floor, taking their place seated mere inches from him. "I thought you'd appreciate that. A little irony to sweeten the pot."
God, he loved watching her circling for the kill. Her blue eyes dancing, the corners of her luscious lips reaching further into her own unique, sly but inviting grin. Perched on the foot rest, legs crossed seductively, weight shifting towards him on one arm, the other running a slow hand down the length of her skirt, smoothing it, knowing he wanted to take that hand in his own and let it travel in the opposite direction. Time to up the ante.
"I don't know," House started off slow. "One million an hour for two months away from hell doesn't seem to quite add up."
Cuddy's mouth hung open in shock. She planted her legs firmly on the ground and sat straight up. "You're joking," she sputtered.
"Nope," House answered calmly. "Actually, now that I think about it, at that price you make me sound cheap," he pouted. "How about nine months off, with the extra two for taking the guy's money nicely."
"Nine!" Cuddy shot up, livid.
"It's divisible by three. Just trying to keep a sense of symmetry," House said without flinching.
"Eight months is ludicrous enough, House!" she exclaimed. "Eleven months – that's almost a year off clinic duty. I can't do that."
"Sure you can," he said, swinging himself out of the chair to stand over her. "If three million is worth at least eight months, why not tag on a few more?"
She shifted restlessly in front of him. "No."
"Afraid your little minions will rebel?" he taunted her. "Don't worry. It'll be our little secret."
"Right," Cuddy laughed. "Like you wouldn't throw a ticker tape parade down the halls for a get out jail free for a year card."
"I'd throw a parade for eight months," House shrugged. "Tell you what, how about we make it an even twelve months. I won't even take the extra two for good behavior."
House stared down at her, daring her with her eyes to say it. "You're insane, House!" she finally let the familiar words fall from her lips.
"See. I knew you remembered how this worked."
Hands firmly on her hips, Cuddy took a step forward, determined not to let him intimidate her. "What do you think is going to happen when the board discovers that you let three million dollars out the door because I'd only let you get away with not doing your job for eight months instead of twelve?"
"I think they'll wonder why you were so eager to give me the first eight in the first place. Then they'll nail your pretty ass to the wall for bickering over four more," House said, raising his voice only to highlight the pretty ass portion of his argument. "Got a plan B?"
Cuddy shot him the most evil glare she could conjure. "There is no plan B," she said, and took a deep breath. She could only scream so long before he found it a turn on. "Unless you consider chloroform and Wilson's trunk plan B." She backed away and returned to perch on House's desk, though not nearly so seductively this time.
"Can't be sure I wouldn't embarrass the hospital that way," he pointed out, limping slowly towards her.
"No shit," she rolled her eyes. "Wilson suggested I offer to sleep with you."
House stopped, smiled, with raised eyebrows. "Should have listened to Wilson. That's a plan B that might have actually worked."
She looked straight into his eyes. "I am not going to sleep with you, House."
"Don't have to," he said with out missing a beat. "See, unlike you, I came prepared with a plan B."
He was almost to her now. She stood up straight, arms crossed defensively, eyes betraying intrigue behind anger. "Fine," she said quietly. "Let's hear it."
House took one final step, closing the distance between them to less than foot. He consciously willed himself to concentrate on her face, eager to give her the way out he'd been preparing for her most of the afternoon.
"I will play the well-behaved, mildly charming, gracious guest of honor for the evening," he enjoyed using her own words to his advantage, something she obviously didn't, "and you will have your three million in blood money."
"Oh please," Cuddy interrupted. "Cut to it, House."
"In exchange," he paused, taking in the moment, "for you agreeing to spend the rest of the evening, alone, with me."
He waited for the hysterical rant to begin, the expletives questioning the circumstances of his birth, the eye rolls, and the thin little smile that warned him he'd gone too far. Cuddy caught them all in her throat as they attempted to push their way out. She even managed to keep her eyes from moving farther than to the side before locking them back on House.
"Fine. Twelve months," she said, shoving him aside and making for the door.
"Interesting," House said, moving swiftly with his cane to block her retreat. She felt the wood land gently across her middle, stopping her long enough for House to reach her. She felt his warm breath on the nape of her neck, hitting just the spot that made her toes curl and her head swim. Damn him.
She forced herself to focus. "What? What's so damned interesting? That I caved? Or that I didn't let you go for 15 months?" She let out a quiet laugh. "That's divisible by three."
"No," House said, knowing exactly how far the needed to lean forward so the words he spoke had the desired effect. "What's interesting is that you would rather give me a year off clinic duty than spend one night alone with me. Just what are we doing in that vivid imagination of yours that makes you so eager to cave to such an insane demand?"
She pivoted on one heal, her eyes digging fiercely into his as she leaned back, looking ready to strike with some primitive force. But her voice was calm, soft even, when she spoke. "Three hours."
"The party is three hours," she stated evenly. "I'll give you three hours. Alone."
House leaned forward, both hands resting on his cane, feigning consideration. "The party is five hours. I only have to be there for three, but then there's the hour to pick out the most flattering shoes to go with the tux, make myself presentable. You understand. Plus there's travel time back and forth."
Cuddy shook her head. She was honestly amused. Pissed, but amused. House dropped the act and stood admiring that look openly, knowing he'd put it on her beautiful face.
"You do realize that in none of those five hours will I be having sex with you?"
"Like I said," House said, "you don't have to. In fact, I promise you, nothing that you don't want to happen, will." He gave her a suggestive grin.
"Just like you, during the party," she laid down her final term.
"Absolutely," House replied. "Though if you want to blur the lines a little, who am I to object?"
Cuddy flashed him her own suggestive grin, leaned up to brush against his ear, and whispered, "Not even for three million, House."
She pulled back and stood to face him squarely. "Five hours alone."
"Three hours of perfect gentleman," he responded.
"We'll see," Cuddy said, putting out her hand. He grasped it, shook once, lingering just long enough to make her begin to feel uncomfortable again.
"Always a pleasure doing business with you, Dr. Cuddy," he said, stepping back behind his desk.
"I'm glad," Cuddy said, turning to take her leave. Then seeing House reflected in the glass, perched behind his desk studying the centerfold as he had when she walked in, a long forgotten heat rose up inside her.
"By the way," she stopped to make sure she had House's attention, "it was Monopoly. In that vivid imagination of mine? I was the boot."
And with that she pushed through the door and retreated down the hallway, House no longer interested in any half naked woman but her.
The following days passed in a much more customary fashion. Wilson brought his lunch from home and succeeded, mostly, in keeping it from House's greedy hands. The only thing he lent out was the services of his dry cleaner, knowing full well that House's tux was likely lying limp in a puddle at the bottom of his closet. Finding more than just the tux in disarray, he also sent over his cleaning lady, more out of pity for Cuddy than as a favor to House.
House's team fell back in to their resistant ways. They challenged treatments and tests and argued over diagnoses in differentials. They protested ridiculous theories and lobbied for more obvious, treatable explanations. They bent to his will when they no longer had the energy to argue and covered their asses all while enjoying the untried and slightly dangerous form of medicine that branded House as both lunatic and genius.
Cuddy returned his smart ass commentary on her wardrobe with grace and sass. She rolled her eyes whenever he popped a Vicodin and spun empty threats about cutting the hospital pharmacy's supply. And though House kept slightly more regular hours in the clinic than he had the previous week, she still managed to find the time to scold him for his lack of due diligence.
Wilson had been informed of the deal in place by both parties. House, eager to flaunt his victory, spilled the news first thing the next morning.
Barging into Wilson's office, House had taken a seat on the couch, his face wearing a content expression, his eyes glittering with secret victory.
"Please tell me she didn't agree to sleep with you," Wilson had said upon seeing the delight that threatened to spill forth from every one of House's pours.
"Sadly, no," House told him. "But boy, do you get brownie points for putting it out there."
"Thanks," Wilson had replied nonchalantly. "So what did you get? A four day work week? Tighter nurses uniforms? Time off clinic duty?"
"She offered me a year off clinic duty," House had answered and Wilson's eyes had widened.
"I passed." House took great pride in seeing Wilson's face transform from shock to confusion.
"Yep. Came up with something better."
Wilson, shaking his head, had given in. "Better than a year off clinic duty? This must be good."
"Oh it is," House had reassured. "I take the guy's money without embarrassing the hospital and she spends the rest of the evening alone, with me."
Wilson looked at House suspiciously. "I thought you said she wouldn't agree to sleep with you."
House had clucked his tongue. "Why does everyone assume that just because you spend the night alone with someone, you're having sex?"
"Because it's you, House."
"I see your point. Still," he'd reassured, "I am capable of restraint. Cuddy on the other hand . . ." and his voice had trailed off.
Wilson laughed. "You think that by playing the part of a perfect gentleman for a few hours, Cuddy will see the error of her ways and fall into bed with you?"
"Doesn't matter," House had said sincerely. "All I need is the time."
"Time?" Wilson had taken a moment to play with the word in his head, searching for an explanation for House's sudden shift in modus operandi. "This wouldn't have anything to do with you kissing Cuddy then being too chicken to do anything more about it, would it?"
"Don't know," House had answered.
"You really don't know, do you?"
House had stood up, eager to retreat before Wilson insisted on digging deeper into anything resembling feelings.
"House," Wilson had called after him, House turning relunctatly, trying to hide the vulnerability he felt surging up inside. "Good for you."
House had simply nodded and closed the door behind him. Wilson had smiled and turned to pick up the phone. Dialing Cuddy's extension, he asked her to lunch.
"An entire year off clinic duty?" Wilson had questioned Cuddy over Caesar salads that afternoon.
"I started with six months. House jacked it up to twelve before pulling the rug out from under me," she'd explained, picking at the greens on her plate.
"Can you survive an entire night with House?"
"I only have to survive five hours with him."
"Right, because the whole part where you get the check before the five hours starts will require no supervision on your part," he'd sarcastically pointed out.
"Ah," she'd smiled knowingly at him. "But I won't be the only one on House duty during the party."
Wilson took the hint. "Yes, well, God forbid he be allowed an unsupervised bathroom visit. He might try to saran wrap the toilet seats."
"Or put dish soap in fountain," Cuddy countered. "I'm sure that would go over fabulously with the historic society." They'd laughed.
"How did Hughes manage to get Prospect House on such short notice?" Wilson had asked, referring to the nineteenth century stone mansion that once housed the presidents of Princeton University, some of them before they moved on to be presidents with even more prestigious addresses, like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The manor and its extensive gardens now hosted meals for faculty and staff, department banquets, and high-end weddings, and was usually booked months in advance.
"Probably another generous donation," Cuddy had posited, sipping her water leisurely. "Any way, it's fine by me, wherever Hughes goes. I'm just thrilled he didn't want to use the hospital. I'd have to shut half the place down to get the number of people just on the preliminary guest list to fit."
"You know," Wilson had said with a smile, "you might want to sit back and just enjoy this."
"What do you mean?
"Cuddy, you work harder and put up with more crap than any hospital administrator or dean of medicine I've ever known, or ever will know," he'd said, causing her face to light up with thanks. "For once, why don't you just sit back, wear a gorgeous dress, and enjoy not being in charge of anything for the night."
She'd shaken her head and smiled, blushing slightly at the reference to the gorgeous dress. "And House?"
"Get a French maid's uniform and make him scrub your floors," Wilson suggested.
Cuddy had laughed. "Good idea, but the five hours is at his place."
"So make him scrub his floors in the French maid's uniform," Wilson turned it around. "And get photos. Then you'll have something on him the next time he tries to pull the rug out from under you."
Cuddy's face had turned from amused to thoughtful. "I just wish I new what he was up to. Trading a year off clinic duty for five hours with me, with a no sex guarantee? That's not exactly something you expect from House."
Wilson had studied her for what seemed to Cuddy like ages. When he spoke, he was slow and careful. "Usually when House does something out of the ordinary it's because the equation has changed. Maybe this his way of solving for X."
Cuddy leaned in and lowered her voice. "House told you about our kiss?" She already knew the answer but she needed to hear it.
Wilson had been shy in his reply. "Yes, he told me. Which, by the way, means it meant something to him. If it hadn't, he'd have kept it from me until he needed it to screw with me at some point in the future."
Cuddy had thought that over carefully and had decided it was likely true. "I wish I knew what he was so afraid of."
Wilson had smiled at that. "House, as a rule, doesn't do well with change."
"So this is his way of dangling his feet in shallow end of the pool?" She hadn't been sure if she should take it as a compliment or not.
"Look," he'd told her as they'd finished off lunch. "House will do whatever House will do, regardless of how much you try to manage him. But as long as he's got those five hours with you dangling out there like a carrot, I think he'll behave."
"Great. Now all I have to worry about is what happens when he gets to the carrot."
"Like I said before, just relax and enjoy the evening," Wilson had said with a smile.
Cuddy her conversation with Wilaon wander in her mind over the next few days. She considered the tempting opportunity that merely required her to mingle in a lovely setting before watching House accept the three million for the clinic. She worked hard and desperately wanted to be able to enjoy herself for an evening, especially one in which the hospital would be taking in such a large donation. She suspected Wilson was right and that House would cooperate, as much as House ever cooperated.
She even let her mind wander over the idea of what came after the three million. House didn't adjust well to change but maybe this really was some effort on his part to explore something more than their usual dance and games. If she was honest with herself, she could find several moments over the last couple of years where they had come closer to letting the other one into their lives. If she were even more honest, she would have to admit that she enjoyed what they had, even looked forward to it most days.
But the days that she didn't enjoy were hell. House knew what to say and how to say it to inflict maximum damage. When he meant to hurt her, he knew how, and it was harder not to care now than it had been only a few years ago. Maybe that was because she cared more for him now, or he cared more for her and so resisted with greater force. Not exactly a healthy relationship, but at least she knew it, and so did he.
By the end of the week, she'd overanalyzed and rethought every possible outcome, motivation, feeling, desire, and interaction she'd ever had or could imagine having with House, and came to the conclusion that she was being ridiculous. Wilson was right about her enjoying the evening and that is what she fully intended on doing. Everything else could fall where it may.
She found herself preparing and replacing her evening ensemble as each updated guest list landed on her desk. When House had poked his head in one afternoon, just to see her squirm, she'd considered a trip to New York City for a whole new look.
"Hey," he'd called to her from her door, his head leaning into the room. "Did you see this guest list? Caroline Kennedy! We're the hottest ticket in town!"
She'd sunk another three inches in her chair, cursing men and their easy choice of tuxedo or jacket and tie. Then glancing at her calendar, she made two quick calls and cleared the remainder of tomorrow's afternoon schedule. She would not let House, the three million, the five hours, or the ritzy guest list get in the way of her well deserved evening. She was going to enjoy herself and look damn good doing it.
Deleting emails from board members with congratulations and subtle warnings in the form of best wishes in dealing with House, Lisa Cuddy gathered up her things and strode out the door. She stopped at the nurses' station to let them know she would be in early tomorrow before taking the rest of the day off.
From his perch above the clinic's reception area, House watched as Cuddy seemed to find the energy that had threatened to escape her the last few days. He watched her lips as she leaned in to tell one of the nurses something, never losing her grace as she spoke with authority. He remembered those lips, soft then firm and inviting as he'd taken them in his own. He could taste her, just barely, even now.
Watching as she turned to leave, he saw her pause and look up, as if she'd known he was there the entire time. She raised her eyes to him, a curiously calm and contented smile stretched across the lips he recalled with such intensity. Before he could change his expression from anything other than private delight, she turned away and exited through the hospital's double doors. House chuckled silently at himself, not sure he had wanted her to see him any other way.